top of page

Cyrano Sunday: Poetic Forms - The Duel in Verse

<img src="https://images.squarespace-cdn.com/content/v1/5b998a2ffcf7fda4e9eef0a2/1554649121607-GRUGYAVV3ISWCB6WJ8PU/Epee+Duel.png" alt="Le Duel a L'Epee, plate 26 from &quot;Les Caprices&quot; (1617) by Jaques Callot from The Fine Arts Museums of San Fransico." />

Le Duel a L'Epee, plate 26 from "Les Caprices" (1617) by Jaques Callot from The Fine Arts Museums of San Fransico.

Le Duel a L'Epee, plate 26 from "Les Caprices" (1617) by Jaques Callot from The Fine Arts Museums of San Fransico.

One of the most fascinating parts of “Cyrano de Bergerac” for writers, poets and literary aficionados is the exquisite detail of Edmond Rostand’s poetry. Though writing in the 19thcentury, Edmond Rostand both set his Cyrano in the 17thcentury and also revived and use the favored verse format of that time: Alexandrine verse in rhyming couplets. In Alexandrine verse, major accents occur on the sixth and twelfth syllables and a caesura (pause) occurs immediately after the sixth syllable.

Within the lyrical Alexandrine rhymes that form Cyrano’s structure, Edmond Rostand took the time to write several separate poems in different classic French meters. The first of these, the “Duel in Verse” is the subject of this week’s Cyrano Sunday. As Cyrano himself mockingly tells us and his challenger the Viscount de Valvert, “A balladeis comprised of three stanzas/Of eight lines…(Oh!) and a refrain of four.” What he doesn’t mention is that each of the stanza use the same rhyme scheme and that each one ends with an identical refrain line.

The ballade was one of the principal forms of music and poetry in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century France. In tone ballades were often solemn and formal, with elaborate symbolism and classical references. Here is the poem in the original French (The line “Envoi” before the last stanza has been cut to match our translation)

CYRANO:

Je jette avec grâce mon feutre, Je fais lentement l'abandon Du grand manteau qui me calfeutre, Et je tire mon espadon; Élégant comme Céladon, Agile comme Scaramouche, Je vous préviens, cher Mirmydon, Qu'à la fin de l'envoi je touche !

(Premiers engagements de fer): Vous auriez bien dû rester neutre; Où vais-je vous larder, dindon ?. . . Dans le flanc, sous votre maheutre ?. . . Au coeur, sous votre bleu cordon ?. . . --Les coquilles tintent, ding-don ! Ma pointe voltige: une mouche ! Décidément. . .c'est au bedon, Qu'à la fin de l'envoi, je touche.

Il me manque une rime en eutre. . . Vous rompez, plus blanc qu'amidon ? C'est pour me fournir le mot pleutre ! --Tac ! je pare la pointe dont Vous espériez me faire don;-- J'ouvre la ligne,--je la bouche. . . Tiens bien ta broche, Laridon ! A la fin de l'envoi, je touche.

(Il annonce solennellement): Prince, demande à Dieu pardon ! Je quarte du pied, j'escarmouche, Je coupe, je feinte. . . (Se fendant): Hé! là, donc! (Le vicomte chancelle; Cyrano salue): A la fin de l'envoi, je touche!

When translating, one of the most difficult tasks is to honor poetic forms and rhyme schemes. Some translators choose to abandon them all together, but in this play in particular that would be a great loss. In our translation, we chose to honor the form of the triolet, with the four iambic feet and the ABABBCBC rhyme scheme.

CYRANO:

My hat into the air takes wing I strip my cloak and so prepare. All carelessly aside tossing, From leather sheath, my sword I bare. My revealed elegance is spare, Ferocious, agile, fighting fit, So fawning flatterer, beware! For when the refrain ends, I hit!

(first exchange of blows): Now where should I begin cutting To carve and serve this peacock fair? What shall we have? A leg? A wing? Your pretty ribbons I will tear, And pluck the feathers from your hair! Like buzzing fly my point does flit, Where will it land? Why anywhere! For when the refrain ends, I hit!

I choose my rhymes with every swing Fit word to blow with utmost care You’re hoping for an opening But will not take me unaware I parry and evade the snare I bind the blade and twist a bit. Look to your sword. It’s in midair! For when the refrain ends, I hit!

(he announces solemnly): To highest heaven make your prayer For mercy, God may answer it. But I coupéand feint and there! (He lunges and impales the Viscount.) The refrain’s ended and I hit! (The Viscount falls; Cyrano salutes him with his sword.)

Let’s walk through the text and see how we got from the original to this translation.

Je jette avec grâce mon feutre, Je fais lentement l'abandon Du grand manteau qui me calfeutre, Et je tire mon espadon; Élégant comme Céladon, Agile comme Scaramouche, Je vous préviens, cher Mirmydon, Qu'à la fin de l'envoi je touche!

In a literal translation, this stanza means:

I throw with grace my hat I make slowly to abandon The large cloak/cote that covers me And I draw my grand sword

So far so good. We are running very close to the French with our version. We just add a little fancifulness to get the rhyme scheme.

My hat into the air takes wing I strip my cloak and so prepare. All carelessly aside tossing, From leather sheath, my sword I bare.

Unfortunately in the second half of the stanza we hit the allusions for which Ballades are known and then we have a problem.

Élégant comme Céladon, Agile comme Scaramouche, Je vous préviens, cher Mirmydon, Qu'à la fin de l'envoi je touche!

In a literal translation, this stanza means:

Elegant like Céladon, Agile like Scaramouche, I let you know, Dear Myrmidon That at the end of the refrain, I hit.

So now we have a communication problem because he is making allusions to classical Greek and Roman literature and Classical French literature in the same stanza and most American audiences are not going to have these same allusions as a frame of reference. Céladonis the hero in d'Urfé's pastoral romance L'Astrée (1607–27). How many of us have read that one? Most of us might be more familiar with Scaramouche, a stock character in Italian Commedia, and a Myrmydon is a follower or subordinate of a powerful person, typically one who is unscrupulous or carries out orders unquestioningly.

As a translator we are now faced with the dilemma, do we translate it as writ? Or do we try to capture the meaning in a way that will be clearer to our particular audience? We have obviously chosen the second path. We have tried to retain the adjectives that Rostand uses while replacing his specific allusions with the generic qualities associated with their characters, all while remaining within the rhyme scheme.

My revealed elegance is spare, Ferocious, agile, fighting fit, So fawning flatterer, beware! For when the refrain ends, I hit!

As you might imagine, this was quite difficult and required a prodigious amount of thought and the inspiration and consolation of more than one glass of French wine. Fortunately, we have made it to the second stanza:

(Premiers engagements de fer): Vous auriez bien dû rester neutre; Où vais-je vous larder, dindon ?. . . Dans le flanc, sous votre maheutre ?. . . Au coeur, sous votre bleu cordon ?. . . --Les coquilles tintent, ding-don ! Ma pointe voltige: une mouche ! Décidément. . .c'est au bedon, Qu'à la fin de l'envoi, je touche.

In a literal translation, this stanza means:

You should have remained neutral Where am I going to stab you turkey cock? In the side, under your padded sleeve To the heart, under your blue cord/lace The shells ring, ding-don My point flits: a fly! Truly, it’s to the stomach That at the end of the refrain, I hit

From a translator’s standpoint this isn’t too bad. It is fairly clear what is happening except for the specifics of the costume reference in the third and fourth line. In the fifth line, the shells most likely refer to the hilts of the swords clashing together, and ding-don is the sound that French bells make. However, from a poetic standpoint, in English it becomes both blunt and unwieldy. In our translation we have let go of the first line in the French to start with the second where the real action begins. We have replaced turkey cock which is not a common English usage with peacock which still fits Valvert. Then we got a little fanciful because we were being somewhat battered by the rhyme. The “wing” refers obliquely to “under the padded sleeve.” “Your pretty ribbons” refers obliquely to the reference to “blue cord/lace” in the fourth line. “The shells ring, ding-don” unfortunately had to be left out because we could find no way to integrate that rhyme. But finally, we are back to the French in the sixth line, and then we immediately hit another road block with stomach. Have you ever in your life heard a word that rhymes with stomach? Should we use Tummy? Belly? Nope, those aren’t much better, and so that line gets rewritten as well. The resulting translation isn’t as close to the French as we prefer, but it has its own elegance and flow.

Now where should I begin cutting To carve and serve this peacock fair? What shall we have? A leg? A wing? Your pretty ribbons I will tear, And pluck the feathers from your hair! Like buzzing fly my point does flit, Where will it land? Why anywhere! For when the refrain ends, I hit!

We will finish up the last two stanzas of the “Duel in Verse” in our next Cyrano Sunday.

#french #translation #austin #austintexas #theater #cyrano #cyranodebegerac #cyranoscottishrite2019

0 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page